The Albany we found in October when we came down as SNCC field workers was quite different from the Albany we now know. Naturally, though, many things remain the same. The swift flowing, cool waters of the Flint River still cut off the east side of the city from the west. The paved streets remind visitors that civilization may be thought to exist in the area while the many dusty, sandy roadways in residential areas cause one to wonder where tax money goes. Beautiful homes against green backgrounds with lawns rolling up and down hills and around corners held up by the deep roots of palm and pine trees untouched by years of nature's movement, sunny days with moonlit nights--this was the Albany we had been introduced to in October. But this was not the real Albany; the real Albany was seen much later.
Albany is known by its people to be "liberal." Located in the center of such infamous counties as "Terrible Terrell," "Dogging Douglas," "Unmitigated Mitchell," "Lamentable Lee," "Unbearable Baker," and the "Unworthy Worth County." It stands out as the only metropolitan area of any prominence in Southwest Georgia. It is the crossroads of rural people in villages and towns within a radius of ninety miles. It was principally because of its location that Albany was chosen as the beachhead for Democracy in DEEP Southwest Georgia.
Initially, we met with every obstacle possible. We had come down with the idea of setting up office in Albany and moving on shortly to Terrell County. This idea was short-lived. We found that it would take more time than we thought to present this city of 23,000 Negroes with the idea that freedom is worth sacrifice. . . .
The first obstacle to remove . . . was the mental block in the minds of those
who wanted to move but were unable for fear that we were not who we said we
were. But when people began to hear us in churches, social meetings, on the
streets, in the poolhalls, lunchrooms, nightclubs, and other places where people
gather, they began to open up a bit. We would tell them of how it feels to be in
prison, what it means to be behind bars, in jail for the cause. We explained to
them that we had stopped school because we felt compelled to do so since so many
of us were in chains. We explained further that there were worse chains than
jail and prison. We referred to the system that imprisons men's minds and robs
them of creativity. We mocked the systems that teaches men to be good Negroes
instead of good men. We gave an account of the many resistances of injustice in
the courts, in employment, registration, and voting. The people knew that such
evils existed but when we pointed them out time and time again and emphasized
the need for concerted action against them, the people began to think. At this
point, we started to illustrate what had happened in Montgomery, Macon,
Nashville, Charlotte, Atlanta, Savannah, Richmond, Petersburg, and many other
cities where people came together and protested against an evil
system. . . .
From the beginning we had, as Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field people, visited the NAACP Youth Chapter, introduced ourselves and outlined our project for Voter-Registration. We pointed out differences between the two organizations and advanced the hope that we could work together.
From this point we initiated meetings in the churches of the city. We had introduced ourselves to the Baptist Ministerial Alliance and the Interdenominational Alliance. We were given their support as groups and many churches opened their doors to us; others were afraid for one reason or another.
To these churches we drew the young people from the College, Trade and General High schools, and on the street. They were searching for a meaning in life. Nine committees were formed--Typists, Clubs, Writing, Telephone, Campus, communication, Sunday School communication, Ministerial communication, Boy and Girl Scouts, and a central committee of eighteen persons. Some of those were members of the NAACP Youth Chapter. They kept coming to the workshops we were holding every night at different churches. . . .
That same morning, five or six of us got together at the home of a local citizen and planned again to go to the bus terminal. At three o'clock, nine students approached the bus station, which is located only one block away from the predominantly "Negro" business area. Upon seeing the neatly dressed students walk toward the station, a large number came from the poolrooms, lunchrooms, liquor stores, and other places. . . .
The stories of faraway cities and their protests turned over in their minds. Was this a dream or was it really happening here in Albany? The students symbolized in the eyes of them who looked on, the expression of years of resentment--for police brutality, for poor housing, for dis[e]nfranchisement, for inferior education, for the whole damnable system. The fruit of years of prayer and sacrifice stood the ageless hatched-men of the South, the policeman, but the children of the new day stood tall, fearless before the legal executioners of the blacks in the DEEP south.
The bus station was full of men in blue but up through the mass of people past the men with guns and billies ready, into the terminal, they marched, quiet and quite clean. They were allowed to buy tickets to Florida but after sitting in the waiting room, they were asked to leave under the threat of arrest. They left as planned and later filed affidavits with the Interstate Commerce Commission. The idea had been delivered. In the hearts of the young and of the old, from that moment on, Segregation was dead--the funeral was to come later.
There was a meeting of minds which came about as a result of this action. It was a momentous occasion! The gathering was scheduled for one Friday evening, at a citizen's home. The proposed number of five had grown to a total of twenty interested persons who had been invited by the initial five. No one imagined the importance of this meeting. Its objective was to organize and thereby discipline a group to negotiate with the city officials. It was generally understood that the entire group would go before the officials but later three men were chosen to represent the group (THE ALBANY MOVEMENT). This committee presented to the Mayor the displeasure of the community with Segregation as connected with the following: Train station, Bus terminal, Library, Parks, Hospitals, City Buses, Juries, Jobs and other public facilities. There was no reasonable consequence of the meeting with the Mayor; it was as if there had never been communication.
But the importance of this meeting of the representatives of the Albany community at the home of a citizen lies in its structure. The real issue immediately took the floor in the form of a question: Would the organizations involved be willing to lose their identity as separate groups and cooperate under the name of "THE ALBANY MOVEMENT"? All of the organizations had to caucus--Baptist Ministerial Alliance, Interdenominational Alliance, Criterion Club, Lincoln Heights Improvement Association, Federated Women Clubs of Albany, National Association for the Advance of Colored People and its coordinate groups--Youth Council--Albany Voters League, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There were other interested persons who were members of such groups as the American Legion, Masons, Elks, etc., but not there as official representatives. These groups later gave their support. After a short period of deliberation the groups were ready to give their opinions. All of the groups were willing to lose their identit[ies] in the local organization except the NAACP, whose delegates requested time to receive directives from the national office.
The Albany Movement soon grew to the statue of "Spokesman" for the "Negro" community; a representative social unit with extraordinary powers of negotiations had been born. . . .
[T]he first mass meeting was called at one of the larger churches in the city--Mount Zion. A week before the meeting, enthusiasm had already been developing. There was a men's day exercise at which the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Treasurer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was the main speaker. He had been invited by the local church, but his soul-searching message touched the hearts of many, mounting enthusiastic anticipation for the mass meeting.
The night of the first Mass Meeting came! The church was packed before eight o'clock. People were everywhere, in the aisles, sitting and standing in the choir stands, hanging over the railing of the balcony upstairs, sitting in trees outside near windows, and about twenty or thirty ministers sat on the pulpit in chairs and on the floor side by side. There was no bickering. Soon a young doctor of the community took charge of the gathering, leading in the freedom songs which have grown out of the student movement during the last two years. Petitions were laid before Almighty God by one of the ministers and a challenge was directed to the assembly by the young doctor. Then arose a tall, silver-haired, outspoken veteran of the struggle. He spoke [in a] slow and determined [manner]. He referred to attempts last year to unify the community in protest against literary abuse of black men in the local paper and filled in with vivid detail the developments to the date of the Mass Meeting. Appearing also on the program was the indefatigable, only, local Negro lawyer, C. B. King. He stood flatfooted and thundered with his explosively deep voice, striking at both the inaction of the church and its hypocrisy. He also condemned local leadership in other areas for procrastination. At times he sounded like the prophet of doom but before he had finished, in his highly polished speech, he declared that our only hope was unity. This had been the real reason for the Mass Meeting--to weld the community into one bond of reason and emotion. The force to do this was generated by accounts of the released who individually described the physical situation and mental state of each, in jail.
When the last speaker among the students, Bertha Gober, had finished, there was nothing left to say. Tears filled the eyes of hard, grown men who had known personally and seen with their own eyes merciless atrocities committed by small men without conscience. As Bertha, with her small frame and baby voice told of spending Thanksgiving in jail along with other physical inconveniences, there was not a dry eye to be found. And when we rose to sing "We Shall Overcome," nobody could imagine what kept the top of the church on four corners. It was as if everyone had been lifted up on high and had been granted voices to sing with the celestial chorus in another time and in another place.
I threw my head back and closed my eyes as I sang with my whole body. I remembered walking dusty roads for weeks without food. I remembered staying up all night for two and three nights in succession writing and cutting stencils and memeographing and wondering--How Long? I remembered thinking about home, a thousand miles away and fun, games, dancing, movies, boatrides, tennis, chess, swimming,--LIFE; this was history.
But when I momentarily opened my eyes something good happened to me. I saw standing beside a dentist of the city, a man of the streets singing and smiling with joyful tears in his eyes and beside him a mailman with whom I had become acquainted along with people from all walks of life. It was then that I felt deep down within where it really counts, a warm feeling and all I could do was laugh out loud in the swelling of the singing